As any other season, this season begins with questions. These questions are what will fill the chat rooms and websites for the next few weeks in the lead-up to the start of the 100th NHL season.
The pressure is on management, and it will continue to build as the season progresses. There is only one way to release that pressure in Montreal, as it was once famously said, “When you win there is no pressure.”
“When you win, there is no pressure” — Guy Lafleur
Here are seven questions that will follow the Canadiens all season long:
How do our prospects rank against other NHL prospect systems?
Canadiens fans had an opportunity to see the development of the Habs prospects as the rookie training camp began September 7th and continued into the Rookie Tournament to be held in Toronto September 8th to 10th with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators.
The Canadiens rookies played two games in the mini tournament. Any fans hoping to catch a glimpse of Ryan Poehling or Joni Ikonen will have to wait for the World Junior Championships in December, as neither was be made available for this tournament. There was however a solid 23-man roster headlined by Noah Juulsen, Martin Reway, Victor Mete, and Micheal McNiven.
The tournament showed some weaknesses and strengths. The much vaunted Maple Leaf prospect system provided the Habs rookies a good effort but were unable to match the effort level provided by Canadiens prospects.
In their second game in as many nights, their young legs didn’t have enough jump to keep up with the Senators’ prospects. The baby Sens were able to score a two point conversion on their touchdown versus the baby Habs’ safety in an 8-2 final.
Will Martin Reway regain the form he had during his junior hockey career?
The name that stands out to hardened Habs fans will be Martin Reway. Reway missed all of last season with a heart infection and came close to having his career coming to a tragic end due to the illness. Yet, he persevered and began training in earnest earlier this year in preparation for making a good impression in camp.
Reway is fully recovered from his illness, and is entering camp with confidence in search of an NHL job. Unfortunately for him and any made for TV movie plans he may have, his own personal miracle on ice is unlikely to occur.
His play in the rookie tournament showed flashes of talent, yet his overall play was tentative and rusty. For this reason, his story is likeliest to lead him to the Laval Rocket this year where he will play a key offensive role with less pressure.
Will any rookies shock management into changing plans?
One player entering rookie camp to watch looking to earn an Entry Level Contract (ELC) as a tryout invitee to camp will be Maxime Fortier. The Montreal native has been the top offensive weapon for the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads for two seasons. Although undersized, he plays a 200-foot game that Claude Julien and Marc Bergevin love from young players.
He is my choice as a sleeper pick ready to surprise management. His play in this year’s rookie tournament was not that of a world beater. What he did demonstrate however is his ability to play any role asked of him. That said, even if signed to an ELC, he would most likely be sent back to Halifax, but he would be a solid long term project as a hometown prospect.
Will any Habs prospect earn an NHL job out of camp?
There will be an NHL job rife for the taking by at least one Habs prospect. Players such as Charles Hudon, Jacob De La Rose, and Michael McCarron are all knocking on the dressing room door.
McCarron being able to be sent down without having to be placed on waivers will likely be his downfall in the competition. Unless he can step in and show he can steal a veteran’s spot in the top nine, he will likely be starting the season with the Rocket.
De La Rose has the inside track on a fourth line due to his mature defensive game. Hudon is the wildcard. His offensive ability leaves many Habs fans demanding his call up. If he can find his defensive game, the position will undoubtedly be his to start the season. This unscientific poll of fans seems to point to their belief that is true.
— Blain (@Potsy_70) September 6, 2017
Will Shea Weber finally have a steady partner?
Last season saw Shea Weber audition both Alexei Emelin and Andrei Markov for significant time. Emelin looked like his prime playing days had returned when paired with Weber. However, both have now moved on leaving a void to be filled to the left of Weber.
On the power-play (PP), it would seem Drouin is likely to play the role of quarterback. Yet, at five-on-five (5v5), Weber is in need of a partner. David Schlemko has been the front-runner in talks over the summer. Other new arrivals Joe Morrow and Jacub Jerebek are also unproven. Brendan Davidson is in the mix as well.
The issue is that none have proven themselves as anything more than being third pairing defenders and temporary second pair fill-ins. Weber can help to mask deficiencies in his partners game, yet Julien will need his top pair to provide consistently excellent defense to shut down top opposition. Additionally, as good as Weber is, no defender can be expected to single handedly carry a pairing all season long and expect excellent results.
Will Jonathan Drouin become the Habs long-awaited top center?
When Galchenyuk was drafted, it was thought the Canadiens had finally found that decades long awaited franchise center man. Five seasons into his career, he has shown the offensive flair required of the position, yet his defense has made Michel Therrien and Julien feel he is in need of more seasoning. Now, Bergevin confims in an interview with Bob MacKenzie that the experiment at center for Galchenyuk will be shelved indefinitely.
Drouin was drafted by Tampa Bay as a center, and like Galchenyuk, was seen as an offensive dynamo. He was also eased into the NHL by playing on the wing, but in his case Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnston were ahead of him on the depth chart as centers
Now Drouin will don la Sainte Flanelle and the fan base must ease their expectations so as not to make him out to be the great hope. He will require two solid two-way wingers to take advantage of his offensive gifts and to guide his play on the defensive side of the puck.
All signs point to Drouin starting the season as the center for captain Max Pacioretty. Drouin’s vision and sublime passing skills make him an excellent choice for the role. The issue that always arises is defensive ability. If he shows to be capable the role will remain his.
This may not be what fans had envisioned, and it is quite obviously the best case scenario possible, yet having another offensively gifted forward under the age of 24-years-old is a major coup for management. Especially considering that $10.4M dollars of cap space, the equivalent of what is widely seen as the cost of signing a top line center is expended on the two players.
What will be done with the $8.4M in cap space?
This brings us to the 8.4 million dollar question. What will Bergevin do with all his cap space? It seems that he is comfortable starting the season with the roster that is in place. Despite the questions surrounding it’s makeup, it has the talent in place to earn a playoff birth.
That said, it is highly unlikely a GM who is feeling the heat from local media and his fan base would go past the Trade deadline on February 28th, 2018 without a major move to solidify the roster for a deep playoff run.
The answer long term to this question resides with the play of Drouin and Phillip Danault. If both can become top six centers, then this space can be used on a defender to pair with Weber. If neither can provide that long awaited one-two punch at center, Bergevin will have no choice but to go all in and move for a proven top six center.
These and many other questions will follow the team all season long. Some of the drama surrounding these questions may seem over dramatic like a daytime soap opera, but that is the reality of the market. So, like snow in the crease, these are the days of our Habs.